NBA West preview 2011-12

RYAN WOLSTAT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:41 AM ET

In predicted order of finish with last year’s record and standing in the Western Conference

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

(55-27) 4th

Is this the year Thunder puts it all together?

Young group was reassembled after reaching the West Final. Trendy pick to win it all with the presumptive league MVP in Kevin Durant but Russell Westbrook needs to feed him the ball. A svelte Kendrick Perkins should make a major impact and the young legs will help Oklahoma City last and keep fresh for the playoffs. Team could use another productive combo forward to upgrade the bench, which should have trouble scoring if both Durant and Westbrook are on the bench. The Pressure is now on the Thunder, it will be interesting to see if the team wilts like it did against Dallas, or stands strong and pushes through to the next level.

Changing Faces: In — G Reggie Jackson; Out — C B.J. Mullens

2. L.A. Clippers

(32-50) 13th

Will the knees hold up?

This would be one of the biggest leaps up the standings in league history and it all might come down to whether Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can stay healthy. They each have had knee troubles in the past – Griffin missed his entire rookie season and Caron Butler has found playing a full season impossible over the past few years. At full strength, this is a fearsome squad capable of toying with opponents on offence. Depth is an issue and Chauncey Billups playing out of position could prove troublesome, but there is a lot to like in Clipper-land for the first time in years. No team will be more fun to watch.

Changing Faces: In — PG Paul, G Billups, SF Butler; Out — G Eric Gordon, SF Al Farouq-Aminu, C Chris Kaman

3. Dallas Mavericks

(57-25) 3rd

Will the defence hold up without Tyson Chandler, Dwane Casey and DeShawn Stevenson?

Chandler held everything together and made Casey’s zone defence hum, while Stevenson was a stopper at the two. Without that trio, the Mavericks surely will take a significant step backwards defensively. Luckily Lamar Odom and Vince Carter will upgrade the attack. However, neither veteran is known for committing to stopping opponents. Third might be a highly optimistic predicted landing spot for the defending champs, but they still have some nice pieces. Rick Carlisle will be in tough to take the Mavs back to the top. Bet on a new champion.

Changing Faces: In — PF Odom, SG Carter, G Delonte West; Out — C Chandler, SG J.J. Barea, SG Stevenson, SG Rudy Fernandez, SF Peja Stojakovic

4. L.A. Lakers

(57-25) 2nd

Can the Lakers land Dwight Howard.

They’d better because Kobe Bryant won’t last without him. Bryant’s only 33, but nobody has put more mileage on than Bryant, who has played a ton of regular season and playoff contests since entering the league as a teenager, as well as international outings and countless hours in the gym. It is hard to see him having much in the tank come playoff time. Unless, that is, he is joined once again by the best centre in the league as was the case when Shaq arrived in Los Angeles. Howard would make the Lakers a contender once more. With Brook Lopez out for months, L.A. is again the front-runner for Howard.

Changing Faces: In — F Troy Murphy, F Josh McRoberts, F Jason Kapono; Out — F Lamar Odom, G Shannon Brown.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

(46-36) 8th

Can they seamlessly re-integrate Rudy Gay?

A strange question, to be sure, since Gay is Memphis’ best player, but the club played fantastic without him. Gay got hurt in the middle of February and the Grizzlies went 15-10 without him, upset San Antonio in the first round before taking heavily favoured Oklahoma City to seven games. Gay is great, but Tony Allen and others really stepped up in his absence. If he pushes too hard to regain his top dog status, it could undo a lot of the progress that was made last season. The betting here though is that Gay makes the Grizz even better.

Changing Faces: In — F Brian Skinner; Out — F Shane Battier, C Hamed Haddadi.

6. San Antonio Spurs

(61-21) 1st

How far will they fall?

Tops in the West a year ago, San Antonio could struggle just to make the playoffs. Even with the great Gregg Popovich in control, the Spurs can’t ignore the fact that Tim Duncan is nowhere close to the player he once was. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are still playing exceptionally well – Parker was one of the top two or three players at the European Championship this summer, but neither can stay healthy. Popovich’s frontcourt options won’t thrill him. Antonio McDyess has retired and Matt Bonner often gets on his nerves for his defensive issues. DaJuan Blair is going to have to come up huge for the Spurs to stay in the hunt.

Changing Faces: In — PG T.J. Ford, G Cory Joseph, SF Kawhi Leonard; Out — F/C McDyess.

7. Portland Trail Blazers

(48-34) 6th

How much of a blow will Brandon Roy’s sudden retirement have on the franchise?

Emotionally, losing Roy was devastating to the team and its fans. Roy was arguably the best Portland player since Clyde Drexler and a fantastic complement to LaMarcus Aldridge. But realists knew this day was coming for a while. Many teams avoided Roy (including the Raptors) on draft day because it was clear he would not last long. The mental impact of losing Roy might actually be bigger than the physical toll though, because Wesley Matthews seems on the verge of becoming an excellent replacement and because Portland has two star-calibre options at small forward in Nic Batum and Gerald Wallace plus Jamal Crawford as another option at guard.

Changing Faces: In — G Crawford, F Craig Smith, F Kurt Thomas; Out — G Roy, G Patty Mills.

8. New Orleans Hornets

(46-36) 7th

Can they shock the world?

Losing the NBA’s best point guard (Chris Paul) and still making the playoffs would be quite a feat. It probably isn’t in New Orleans’ best long term interests, since the 2012 draft is so deep, but, hell, they have Minnesota’s unprotected pick from that deal anyways. The Hornets won’t make the playoffs if they smartly unload veteran talent for more youngsters or picks, but assuming they stand pat, there is more than enough here to make the playoffs. Of course, keeping newly-acquired star Eric Gordon happy (he can force a trade of his own next year) will be paramount for the NBA-owned club.

Changing Faces: In — G Gordon, C Chris Kaman, SF Al-Farouq Aminu ; Out — G Paul, PF David West, C Aaron Gray.

9. Houston Rockets

(43-39) 9th

How long until they make a big move?

Chemistry is going to be terrible in Houston unless the front office shakes things up. Luis Scola and Kevin Martin were all but out the door in a three-way swap before the NBA quashed the move. They weren’t overjoyed about the situation and probably need to be moved at some point. With Yao Ming now retired, the Rockets desperately need to add some star power or else risk being run over in the tough West. Samuel Dalembert is a nice fallback option, but the club really wanted to wrest Nene away from the Nuggets.

Changing Faces: In — C Dalembert, F Marcus Morris; Out — C Yao, C Chuck Hayes.

10. Denver Nuggets

(50-32) 5th

Is there enough depth?

Not really. At least not until March. That’s when Denver probably will get Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith back from China – unless they sign elsewhere. They are stuck in China for months because of contracts signed during the lockout. The team depth – laudable after Carmelo Anthony forced a trade – has turned to laughable. Denver kept Nene and the underrated Arron Afflalo, but will be forced to rely on rookies Kenneth Faried and Jordan Hamilton until the others – particularly Chandler – are allowed to return to America.

Changing Faces: In — F Faried, F Hamilton, G Rudy Fernandez, G Corey Brewer ; Out — G/F Chandler, F Martin, G Smith, G/F Gary Forbes.

11. Utah Jazz

(39-43) 11th

When does another big get moved?

Memo Okur got shipped to New Jersey this week and Al Jefferson is said to be on the block. With Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter the likely frontcourt of the future, Jefferson seems likely to be moved at some point this season. He’s a good player and a great low-block presence, but that’s where Kanter needs to play. Plus Jefferson is a poor defender. Utah needs a star point guard after moving Deron Williams last season and could dangle Jefferson and Devin Harris to see if a match can be found. Paul Millsap is yet another good Jazz big man, but he doesn’t duplicate the others as much as Jefferson.

Changing Faces: In — F Josh Howard, PG Jamaal Tinsley; Out — C Okur, C Kyrylo Fesenko.

12. Phoenix Suns

(40-42) 10th

Does Steve Nash last the season in the Valley of the Suns?

The franchise is going nowhere and badly needs to rebuild. Nash would fetch a hefty prize, despite his upcoming free agent status, perhaps even a valuable 2012 first round pick and more. There is little point in prolonging the obvious any more. The window has closed for the Suns, even Nash can’t lift this group into contention, let alone the playoffs. Losing Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire over the years has done irreparable damage. But Nash has never asked to be moved and he still sells tickets, so there are no guarantees Phoenix does the smart thing this season.

Changing Faces: In — G Shannon Brown, F Markieff Morris, PG Sebastian Telfair; Out — SG Vince Carter, G Aaron Brooks, G Mickael Pietrus.

13. Sacramento Kings

(24-58) 14th

Are they mature enough?

Especially Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins? Evans and Cousins could become one of the most unstoppable duos in the NBA if they keep their eyes on the prize and stay in shape both physically and mentally. It is up to the Kings organization to keep the promising pair on track. Evans has looked great early on and is looking to re-establish himself as a star after following up a rookie-of-they-year season with a forgettable sophomore campaign. Sacramento has talent and Chuck Hayes will provide grit. It will be interesting to see how rookie Jimmer Fredette fits with Evans. It could be spectacular – offensively at least.

Changing Faces: In — C Hayes, G Fredette, F Travis Outlaw; Out — C Samuel Dalembert.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves

(17-65) 15th

Rick Adelman + Ricky Rubio match made in heaven?

It seems that way. Adelman has long been one of the most creative offensive coaches in the league and Rubio is a spectacular passer. Adding both was quite an accomplishment. Minnesota needs to start climbing out of the cellar and this would be a good season to do so to avoid the shame of giving up a top 5 draft pick to New Orleans (from an earlier trade). Rubio has a lot to learn, his past couple of seasons in Europe weren’t as intriguing as his earlier ones, but he will bring some star power to Minnesota, along with No. 2 overall selection Derrick Williams.

Changing Faces: In — Rubio, Williams, F Bonzi Wells, G J.J. Barea; Out — PG Sebastian Telfair.

15. Golden State Warriors

(36-46) 12th

When will Monta Ellis be traded?

At some point Golden State surely will abandon the idea that Ellis and Stephen Curry are a winning backcourt. They are too small, neither one is actually a point guard and now, Ellis has legal issues. They can score a ton, but not even Bill Russell can make up for that porous backcourt. At some point Ellis has to go. Curry is worth building around, even if it’s as a small shooting guard. Something needs to happen and the sooner the better, because Golden State is currently on the road to nowhere.

Changing Faces: In — C Brown, G Brandon Rush, G Klay Thompson; Out — G Charlie Bell, F Al Thornton, F Reggie Williams.


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